First Baptist Church, Salem, Mass

The First Baptist Church, at 54 Federal Street in Salem, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The site of the church in 2017:

The first Baptist minister in Salem was none other than Roger Williams, who briefly served as pastor of the First Church in the 1630s, immediately prior to his famous banishment in modern-day Rhode Island. However, it would be some 170 years before a Baptist church was formally established here in Salem, when 24 parishioners formed the First Baptist Church in 1804. The following year the church installed its first pastor, 25-year-old Brown graduate Lucius Bolles, and around the same time construction began on a permanent church building here on Federal Street, just east of North Street.

The diary of William Bentley, the prominent Unitarian minister of the East Church in Salem, provides an interesting perspective on the early history of this church. At the time, Baptists were a religious minority in Massachusetts, where nearly all churches were Congregational Bentley’s diary reveals hostility toward the Baptists. For example, on January 9, 1805, the day when Reverend Bolles was ordained, Bentley wrote:

A very rainy day & the day designated for the public ordination of a Baptist Minister in Salem. It was a dark day, because we were afraid of the uncharitableness of this Sect which has been the most illiterate in New England. All the ministers were invited. The Tabernacle was opened for the services. I did not attend. No Congregational minister of the Town was present. Dr. Stillman of Boston preached.

A month later, there was a tone of sarcasm when he wrote that “It is said that Mr. L. Bolles does not incline to dip [baptize] in the very cold weather as it too much endangers the health of the Spectators. The public owes him many thanks.” Then, on April 14, following the baptism of 10 more new members, Bentley complained of the Baptists luring members away from the established Congregational churches, writing:

It is said that the Clergy of the Town are about to print a refutation of the Baptists as the Baptists consider as free plunder all the members of their churches & rebaptise all who have been sprinkled at any age or baptised in any form in infancy. This superstition has all its fury at present in this place. Its violence must burst. Still like a storm, it may be short & leave many a wreck on the shore especially when many are too nigh to escape. I cannot think our Clergy equal to the controversy.

The brick, Federal-style Baptist church was completed later in 1805, and was dedicated on January 1, 1806. On that day, Bentley wrote, “This day was appointed to dedicate the New Baptist Brick Meeting House in Salem & to ordain Charles Lowell in the West Church in Boston. I preferred to employ the fine weather in a visit to Boston.” However, later in the same entry he gave some begrudging praise to Bolles:

In Salem, Mr. Bolles preached at the dedication & as usual in such occasions gave the concourse some history of his newly gathered Church. Its rapid progress in fifteen months since his first mission to Salem, is an honour to his perseverance & an example to his Superiors.

Notwithstanding Reverend Bentley’s scorn, the Baptists grew at a rapid pace upon completion of this church building. The congregation more than doubled in size in 1806, and by 1813 it had over 300 members. The church evidently welcomed all races, with Bentley noting in one 1810 entry that “8 young females & one Negro man” were baptized here. Earlier in 1810, he had also commented on how Thomas Paul, the pastor of the First African Baptist Church in Boston, had previously preached here at the church. He was apparently well-received at the church, but was ridiculed by some townspeople and was denied a seat inside the stagecoach:

[I]n the past actually the Negro Minister Paul preached repeatedly in the Close Baptist Meeting House accompanied & assisted by their Pastor. In consequence one family only discovered displeasure, but the wags of the town put a paper of dogrel rhymes in print & distributed them through the town. The Stage refused the Negro Minister a passage in the Stage within, but offered him a seat with the driver, which he angrily refused.

Over the next few years, the church did experience some fluctuations in its size, as many of the members left to form Baptist congregations in the neighboring towns. However, the church remained strong, and during its first 20 years it added 512 members. Reverend Bolles remained in the pulpit until 1826, when he resigned because of poor health and his new responsibilities as corresponding secretary of the Foreign Mission Board in Boston.

The first major changes to the church building came a year later in 1827, when it was expanded and a tower was added above the front entrance, as seen in the first photo. Further changes occurred around 1850, when the original Federal-style design was given Italianate details, such as the quoins on the corners and the arches above the windows. It was remodeled again in the late 1868, was damaged by a fire on October 31, 1877, and then repaired the following year. Although undated, the first photo was probably taken before the fire, and perhaps even before the 1868 renovations.

Much of the tower is cut off in the first photo, but by the turn of the 20th century it consisted of three stages, topped by an almost absurdly oversized illuminated clock. However, the tower was ultimately removed in 1926 due to the cost of maintenance, dramatically altering the exterior appearance of the building. It continued to be the home of the First Baptist Church throughout the 20th century, though, and despite the many changes it still retained significant historic value as the oldest surviving church building in the city.

Today, the historic church building is still standing, although no longer in its original location. The site was needed in order to build the new Essex County courthouse, so the congregation sold the property and relocated to a different church building on Lafayette Street in 2007. The following year, in December 2008, the 1,100-ton brick church was moved a couple hundred feet to the west, to the corner of Federal and North Streets. The exterior was restored and repointed, and the interior was converted into a law library for the new courthouse, which opened in 2012 as the J. Michael Ruane Judicial Center. The photo below shows the church at its current location, a little to the left of where it had once stood.

Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, Salem, Mass

The Essex County Registry of Deeds and Probate Court, on Federal Street in Salem, around 1909-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The courthouse in 2017:

As mentioned in an earlier post, Federal Street is the site of four Essex County courthouse buildings, representing a wide range of architectural styles, from mid-19th century Greek Revival to 21st century Postmodernism. The oldest of these, just out of view on the far right of this scene, was built in 1841, and was followed by a second courthouse in 1862, which can be seen in the distance on the right side of these photos. However, both of these buildings were subsequently dwarfed by the much larger Registry of Deeds and Probate Court building, which was completed in 1909 and is seen here in these two photos.

The Classical Revival-style courthouse was the work of Clarence H. Blackall, a prominent turn-of-the-century architect whose other works included a number of theaters in Boston. This style of architecture was particularly popular for public buildings of the era, and features a granite exterior with a large pediment above the main entrance, supported by six Ionic columns. Other classical elements include the carving above the door, which includes the head of a woman who is wearing a Greek helmet, presumably symbolizing Athena.

Today, this scene looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken a century ago. The building was used by the Registry of Deeds and the Probate Court for many years, and was expanded from 1979 to 1981 with a large addition to the rear. More recently, it was joined by a new county courthouse, which was completed in 2012 and stands just out of view on the left side of the scene. The two 19th century courthouses were subsequently closed, but this courthouse underwent a major renovation that was completed in 2017. This $50 million project included preservation of the original 1909 structure, along with the demolition and reconstruction of the 1979-1981 addition, and the building now houses the Essex County Probate Court and Family Court.

City Hall, Salem, Mass

City Hall, at 93 Washington Street in Salem, around 1865-1885. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

City Hall in 2017:

During the early 19th century, Salem was among the largest cities or towns in the country, ranking among the top ten in the first four federal censuses. It was also the second-largest in New England during this time, behind only Boston, and in 1836 it was incorporated as the second city in the state, with a population of 15,886. At the time, the municipal government occupied the town hall at Derby Square, but construction soon began on a purpose-built city hall here on Washington Street, just north of the intersection of Essex Street.

The building, which was completed in 1838, was designed by noted architect Richard Bond, whose other Salem works included the 1854 Tabernacle Congregational Church (demolished in 1922), as well as the 1841 county courthouse on Federal Street. Bond’s design for City Hall had a Greek Revival exterior, with a granite facade on the Washington Street side and brick walls on the rest of the building. The main entrance is flanked by four Doric pilasters, supporting an entablature that features seven laurel wreaths, with a gilded eagle atop the building. On the interior, the building was constructed with city offices on the first floor, and the mayor’s office and city council chambers on the second floor.

The first mayor of Salem was Leverett Saltonstall I, a prominent politician who had previously served as president of the Massachusetts Senate and would later go on to serve in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1838 to 1843. He was also the great grandfather of Leverett A. Saltonstall, who would serve as governor of Massachusetts and as a U. S. Senator during the mid-20th century. Other notable early mayors included Stephen C. Phillips and Charles W. Upham, both of whom also served in Congress, and Stephen P. Webb, who served as mayor from 1842 to 1845 and 1860 to 1862, while in the interim serving as mayor of San Francisco from 1854 to 1855.

The first photo was taken at some point in the post-Civil War era, most likely in the late 1860s or early 1870s, and shows the front facade of City Hall, along with a horse-drawn trolley on Washington Street. The building was significantly expanded in 1876, with an addition that doubled its length, although its appearance from this angle remained unchanged. Another addition came a century later in the late 1970s, but likewise this did not affect the Washington Street side of the building.

Today, this building remains in use as the Salem City Hall, with a well-preserved exterior that shows hardly any changes from the first photo. Now over 180 years old, it is the oldest continuously-used city hall building in the state, and it survives as a good example of Greek Revival-style architecture. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and it is also a contributing property in the Downtown Salem Historic District.

First Church, Salem, Mass

The First Church at the southeast corner of Washington and Essex Streets in Salem, around 1865-1874. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The building in 2017:

This location, at the southeast corner of Essex and Washington Streets, was the site of the First Church of Salem for nearly three centuries. The congregation worshipped in four successive buildings here, beginning with the completion of the first meeting house in 1634. The pastor at the time was Roger Williams, who would preach here for less than two years before his banishment and subsequent founding of Providence. This building was used until the 1670s, when it was replaced by a new meeting house that, in 1692, was the site of some of the examinations during the Salem Witch Trials.

The fourth church on this site was built in 1826, with a Federal-style design that was the work of noted Boston architects Solomon Willard and Peter Banner. The church itself was located on the second floor, while the ground floor was rented out to retail tenants on Essex Street side, providing the church with about $1,000 in revenue per year at the time of its completion. The first photo was taken around 40 years later, and shows the church in its original exterior appearance, with a granite first floor, brick upper section, and Ionic pilasters on the Essex Street facade.

However, around 1874 the exterior of the church was heavily remodeled to give it a High Victorian Gothic-style appearance. The granite first floor was rebuilt, creating a new storefront with large windows on the Essex Street side, and the Washington Street side was expanded to add towers on either side of the building, which were originally topped with pyramidal roofs. Also on the Essex Street side, the pilasters were removed and the rounded arches of the old windows were given pointed stone trim, matching the arches of the new third-floor windows on the addition.

When these renovations were completed, the new ground-floor tenant was Daniel Low & Company. Established in 1874, this store sold jewelry, watches, and silverware, and was a longtime fixture here in downtown Salem. The store would remain here until it finally closed in 1995, although the signs still hang above the first-floor windows in the present-day scene. In the meantime, the First Church continued to worship in the remodeled building until 1923, when the congregation merged with the North Church and relocated to its 1836 Gothic Revival-style church at 316 Essex Street.

Today, the building bears little resemblance to the church from the first photo, aside from the large pediment and the windows on the Essex Street side. However, aside from the missing tops of the towers, the exterior has remained well-preserved since the 1870s renovations. The former Daniel Low storefront is now the Rockafellas restaurant, and the building is now a contributing property in the Downtown Salem Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Essex Street from Washington Street, Salem, Mass

Looking east on Essex Street from the corner of Washington Street in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

This scene shows the commercial center of Salem, with a mix of 19th century buildings that, for the most part, have not seen significant changes since the first photo was taken about a hundred years ago. Starting on the left side, at the northeast corner of Essex and Washington Streets, is the four-story, Classical Revival-style Neal and Newhall Building. It was completed in 1892, and can also be seen from a different angle in this previous post, which shows the Washington Street side of the building. When the first photo was taken, the storefront on the left side was holding an “Auction Sale,” with a sign in the window encouraging customers to “Buy You Holiday Presents Now and Save Money!” The upper floors housed a variety of professional offices, including real estate and insurance agents, and an optician whose second-floor office is marked by two large eyes that are reminiscent of the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg billboard in The Great Gatsby.

Just beyond this building are two smaller commercial blocks. Closer to the foreground is the three-story Browne Block, which was built in 1862 and was occupied by the Hall & Lyon drugstore when the first photo was taken. The shorter building to the right of it, located at 216-218 Essex Street, is even older, dating back to around 1801. It was originally owned by Jacob P. Rust, and in the first photo its tenants included the Palace of Sweets, an ice cream and confectionery shop that was located in the storefront on the left side. At the time it was probably the oldest building in this scene, and today it still stands as the oldest surviving commercial building in the city.

On the right side of the scene, the large building in the foreground is the First Church of Salem, which was built in 1826 and heavily modified in the 1870s. Upon completion, it had a fairly plain Federal-style building, which was work of noted Boston architects Solomon Willard and Peter Banner. It was built as a mixed-use property, featuring storefronts on the ground floor and the church itself on the second floor. The original design lacked towers, but these were added in the mid-1870s, when the exterior of the church was extensively rebuilt with a High Victorian Gothic-style design. By the time the first photo was taken, it was still in use as a church, and the ground floor was occupied by Daniel Low & Company, which sold jewelry, watches, and silverware.

Today, this scene has not had many changes in the century since the first photo was taken. All of the buildings in the foreground are still standing, although some have been altered in one way or another. The Neal and Newhall Building on the left has modern storefronts, and the Browne Block beyond it is nearly unrecognizable, with the top floor gone and a different facade. On the other side of the street, the white building just beyond the church has gained a fifth floor, and the church itself has lost the top of its towers. This building has not been used as a church since 1923, when the First Church merged with the North Church and relocated to their building at 316 Essex Street. The Daniel Low store is also gone, having closed in 1995, and the ground floor now houses the Rockafellas restaurant.

Essex Institute, Salem, Mass

The Essex Institute buildings at 132 and 134 Essex Street in Salem, around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2017:

These two historic Italianate-style buildings were built a few years apart, and for different purposes, but later became home of the Essex Institute and were united into a single building. The older of the two sections, on the right side of the scene, was built in 1851-1852 as the home of merchant John Tucker Daland. It was designed by noted Boston architect Gridley J. F. Bryant, who would later go on to design the old Boston City Hall, and was among the finest homes of this period in Salem. Its square, three-story design echoed the style of earlier Salem mansions, such as the Gardner-Pingree House on the far right side of the photo, but featured Italianate details such as quoins on the corners, bracketed eaves, and arched windows on the third floor.

The building on the left side, Plummer Hall, was built only a few years later, in 1856-1857. It was the work of local architect Enoch Fuller, and included many of the same design features as its neighbor to the right. The building was originally owned by the Salem Athenaeum, a private library that was located in the large space on the upper floor. The lower floor was used by the Essex Institute, which had been established less than a decade earlier in 1848 with the merger of Essex Historical Society and the Essex County Natural History Society. The organization later shifted its focus to regional history, and over the years it accumulated a large collection of books, documents, and artwork, while also holding regular events such as lectures, concerts, and art exhibitions here in the building.

John Tucker Daland died in 1858, and two years later his daughter Susan married physician Benjamin Cox, Jr. The couple lived here in this house, and had two children, Benjamin and Sarah. Dr. Cox was evidently a wealthy man, as shown by the family’s 1870 census listing, which values his real estate at $21,000 and his personal estate at $40,000, for a net worth that would be equivalent to about $1.2 million today. However, he died just a year later, at the age of 65, although the family continued to live here until 1885, when the house was transferred to the Essex Institute and converted into library and office space.

The Essex Institute also acquired ownership of Plummer Hall in 1906, when the Athenaeum relocated to a new building. A year later, the two buildings were joined by a small connector section, which can be seen a few years later in the first photo. The facility would be expanded several more times during the 20th century, including the addition of a five-story bookstack in the 1960s, but its exterior appearance from Essex Street has hardly changed since the first photo was taken. The only noticeable differences are the loss of the balustrades on the roof of the Daland House and on the porch of Plummer Hall, and the addition of a third story atop the connecter section.

Today, the property is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum, which was formed in 1992 by the merger of the Essex Institute with the nearby Peabody Museum of Salem. The museum also owns a number of historic houses in the area, including the adjacent Gardner-Pingree House, the John Ward House on the other side of the building, and the Andrew-Safford House around the corner on Washington Square West. All of these buildings are now part of the Essex Institute Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.